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May 26, 2005

Revenge of the Center

The extremists of the left and right got cocky and the center stole the show.  I like it.  It was a show, too.  The panic over possible changes to the oft-changed filibuster rule was as feigned as the outrage over the Democrats delaying votes on Republican nominees. Positioning the filibuster, which was used to delay civil rights legislation for decades, as a bulwark to protect minority rights is as fatuous as the claims by those who tried to drag the federal judiciary into the Terri Schiavo case that they stand for strict construction and an end to judicial activism.

Newton’s laws seem to apply to American politics.  Increased intolerance from the left induces increased intolerance from the right.  And vice versa.  This time my optimistic interpretation is that increased intolerance and irresponsibility from both the left and right wings provoked a successful reaction from a reasonable center.  Nice result.

What we really need is civil discourse.  While we’re at it, we should abandon the sound-bite simplification that all of us are points on a one dimensional political line and that all of our political and social views can be expressed with a single coordinate of how far to the left or right we are.

The other night I was at seated at dinner with some bright young Democrats.  Since they assumed otherwise, I was careful to identify myself as a republican (my use of capitalization in this case is deliberate but, of course, didn’t come across in conversation).  They were taken aback and wanted to know whether I had actually voted for George Bush AND how far to the right I am.  To their horror (because I think they sort of liked me) I affirmed the former.  But I refused to position myself in one dimension.  I tend to be a libertarian socially and have blogged on the need to legalize all drugs.  I’m a fiscal conservative but “conservative” Republicans aren’t.  I’m a foreign policy hawk.  I’m pro globalization.  I think our public education system sucks.  I’m for both nuclear power and a hydrogen economy.  Each of these is at least one dimension and none of us can or should be categorized by a single coordinate.

Of course, when we had real discussion on these issues we found that our relative positions were all over the map and couldn’t begin to be accurately described on a left-right scale.  Our values were more or less in alignment although our conclusions weren’t and we had very different opinions of our current leaders.

“Do you agree,” they asked me, “with Republicans becoming the mouthpiece for the religious right?”

“I don’t think I’m a mouthpiece for the religious right,” I said.  “Religious zealots of any kind scare the hell out of me.  Too often and too currently, religion has not only excused but demanded murder and war.  Besides I don’t like to have limits on what I’m allowed to think about and what conclusions I’m allowed to reach.”  My new friends nodded in agreement although perhaps not complete belief.

“Of course,” I continued, “political correctness has becomes as intolerant as any religion.  Secular intolerance is no more tolerable than religious intolerance.”  Both the left and the right - the people who actually define themselves in his single dimension – try to enforce an orthodoxy of thought and expression.  But I didn’t sell that to my new friends.

We also argued over whether it was worse to call someone unAmerican or a fascist.  They say “fascist” has lost its sting; it’s an OK label to stick on people to the right of you (back to the single political dimension).  I think of Hitler and Saddam Hussein and don’t agree.  But don’t think it’s very nice or, more important, very enlightening to call people unAmerican instead of arguing civilly with them.

To be historically accurate, political discourse in the US has never been particularly civil.  And, although Burr and Hamilton dueled with fatal results over words, usually we avoid killing each other over our disagreements.  This alone is an accomplishment.  Nevertheless, I’m glad to see the center pull the canvas out from the left and right just when they thought they were going to stage a good fight.

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